Orwell spoke against the political fads and causes of his time and saw the abuses and dishonest tactics which were used to advance them as a far greater threat than evils they were intended to correct. Both progressives and conservative have tried to claim Orwell; Progressives because he was opposed to the fascism which they see as latent in conservatives, and conservatives because Orwell spoke against the totalitarianism which they see as latent in the progressive movement.
But Orwell is interesting to read because he doesn't fit neatly into today's categories. He was always a socialist but in other respects he can come across as a cranky conservative.
Now Orwell's time has passed, but since history seems to like to repeat itself, the wheel has turned and some of the same issues face us again. Here are some of his quotes which I think are more pertinent to us today:
In addition to this there is the horrible — the really disquieting — prevalence of cranks wherever Socialists are gathered together. One sometimes gets the impression that the mere words 'Socialism” and “Communism” attract with magnetic force every fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, “Quaker”, 'Nature Cure' quack, pacifist, and feminist in England.
The Communists have gone but their hangers on have remained and filled the void with new orthodoxies of their own.
Every war, when it comes, or before it comes, is represented not as a war but as an act of self-defence against a homicidal maniac.
Where this age differs from those immediately preceding it is that a liberal intelligentsia is lacking. Bully-worship, under various disguises, has become a universal religion, and such truisms as that a machine-gun is still a machine-gun even when a "good" man is squeezing the trigger have turned into heresies which it is actually becoming dangerous to utter.
So much of left-wing thought is a kind of playing with fire by people who don't even know that fire is hot.
On gun ownership:
Even as it stands, the Home Guard could only exist in a country where men feel themselves free. The totalitarian states can do great things, but there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot give the factory-worker a rifle and tell him to take it home and keep it in his bedroom. THAT RIFLE HANGING ON THE WALL OF THE WORKING-CLASS FLAT OR LABOURER'S COTTAGE, IS THE SYMBOL OF DEMOCRACY. IT IS OUR JOB TO SEE THAT IT STAYS THERE.
In the US today the “rifle in the cottage” is contentious because many of its opponents identify it with racist/fascist tendencies. However Orwell’s concern with fascism had to do with it in its form as a totalitarian movement with access to the power of the state. He seems to have had a lot more trust in the good sense of his fellow citizens than most progressives do today, and I suggest that social trust or lack of it is the underlying issue on both sides behind today’s struggles to retain access to firearms or to restrict it. Orwell’s trust of the common man went hand in hand with his sympathies for revolution, whereas today’s revolutionaries (since progressivism is a kind of revolutionary movement) have a high level of distrust of the common man – at least those of the white persuasion.
Each generation imagines itself to be more intelligent than the one that went before it, and wiser than the one that comes after it. This is an illusion, and one should recognise it as such, but one ought also to stick to one's own world-view, even at the price of seeming old-fashioned: for that world-view springs out of experiences that the younger generation has not had, and to abandon it is to kill one's intellectual roots.
On political correctness:
In a Society in which there is no law, and in theory no compulsion, the only arbiter of behaviour is public opinion. But public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity ….., is less tolerant than any system of law. When human beings are governed by "thou shalt not", the individual can practise a certain amount of eccentricity: when they are supposedly governed by "love" or "reason", he is under continuous pressure to make him behave and think in exactly the same way as everyone else.
Threats to freedom of speech, writing and action, though often trivial in isolation, are cumulative in their effect and, unless checked, lead to a general disrespect for the rights of the citizen.
On passion in ideological questions:
I always disagree, however, when people end up saying that we can only combat Communism, Fascism or what not if we develop an equal fanaticism. It appears to me that one defeats the fanatic precisely by not being a fanatic oneself, but on the contrary by using one's intelligence.
It is all very well to be "advanced" and "enlightened," to snigger at Colonel Blimp and proclaim your emancipation from all traditional loyalties, but a time comes when the sand of the desert is sodden red and what have I done for thee, England, my England? As I was brought up in this tradition myself I can recognise it under strange disguises, and also sympathise with it, for even at its stupidest and most sentimental it is a comelier thing than the shallow self-righteousness of the left-wing intelligentsia.
One cannot see the modern world as it is unless one recognizes the overwhelming strength of patriotism, national loyalty. In certain circumstances it can break down, at certain levels of civilization it does not exist, but as a positive force there is nothing to set beside it. Christianity and international Socialism are as weak as straw in comparison with it. Adolph Hitler and Benito Mussolini rose to power in their own countries very largely because they could grasp this fact and their opponents could not.
Any movement which ignores or depreciates peoples' love of their country ends up marginalizing itself culturally.
England is perhaps the only great country whose intellectuals are ashamed of their own nationality. In left-wing circles it is always felt that there is something slightly disgraceful in being an Englishman and that it is a duty to snigger at every English institution, from horse racing to suet puddings. It is a strange fact, but it is unquestionably true that almost any English intellectual would feel more ashamed of standing to attention during God save the King than of stealing from a poor box. England you say?
The only country? Perhaps now also the US.
By "nationalism" I mean first of all the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects and that whole blocks of millions or tens of millions of people can be confidently labelled "good" or "bad." But secondly — and this is much more important — I mean the habit of identifying oneself with a single nation or other unit, placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests.
The same might also be said about racism or racialism driving identity politics within a nation.
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By "patriotism" I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power. The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality.
Would Orwell have considered Trump’s movement as primarily motivated by nationalism or patriotism?
Totalitarianism vs freedom
The really frightening thing about totalitarianism is not that it commits 'atrocities' but that it attacks the concept of objective truth; it claims to control the past as well as the future.
The enemies of intellectual liberty always try to present their case as a plea for “discipline” versus “individualism”. The issue of truth-versus-untruth is as far as possible kept in the background. Although the point of emphasis may vary, the writer who refuses to sell his opinions is always branded as a mere egoist. He is accused, that is, either of wanting to shut himself up in an ivory tower, or of making an exhibitionist display of his own personality, or of resisting the inevitable current of history in an attempt to cling to unjustified privileges.
I’ve been accused of that last more than once.
It was only after the Soviet régime became unmistakably totalitarian that English intellectuals, in large numbers, began to show an interest in it. Burnham…. is really voicing their secret wish: the wish to destroy the old, equalitarian version of Socialism and usher in a hierarchical society where the intellectual can at last get his hands on the whip.
In other words, they are motivated by a desire to create a Plato’s Republic where the philosopher is king. To this mindset, totalitarianism is not a bug but a feature.
At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is 'not done' to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was 'not done' to mention trousers in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.
I am getting used to receiving aggressive challenges whenever I put something conservative up on FB. It seems that even some of my relatives are becoming thought police.
The relative freedom which we enjoy depends of public opinion. The law is no protection. Governments make laws, but whether they are carried out, and how the police behave, depends on the general temper in the country. If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it; if public opinion is sluggish, inconvenient minorities will be persecuted, even if laws exist to protect them.
The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries but between authoritarians and libertarians.
As a journalist Orwell was very aware of the pressure to pass over certain news - to lie by omission.
A phrase much used in political circles in this country is "playing into the hands of". It is a sort of charm or incantation to silence uncomfortable truths. When you are told that by saying this, that or the other you are "playing into the hands of" some sinister enemy, you know that it is your duty to shut up immediately.
If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.
The Daily Worker disapproves of dictatorship in Athens, the Catholic Herald disapproves of dictatorship in Belgrade. There is no one who is able to say—at least, no one who has the chance to say in a newspaper of big circulation—that this whole dirty game of spheres of inﬂuence, quislings, purges, deportation, one-party elections and hundred per cent plebiscites is morally the same whether it is done by ourselves, the Russians or the Nazis.
Of course, a true believer on either side might have objected to Orwell that the comparison of the Greek dictatorship to the Serbian dictatorship was an attempt at false equivalence.
I have little direct evidence about the atrocities in the Spanish Civil War. I know that some were committed by the Republicans, and far more (they are still continuing) by the Fascists. But what impressed me then, and has impressed me ever since, is that atrocities are believed in or disbelieved in solely on grounds of political predilection. Everyone believes in the atrocities of the enemy and disbelieves in those of his own side, without ever bothering to examine the evidence.
Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side.
The thing that strikes me more and more—and it strikes a lot of other people, too—is the extraordinary viciousness and dishonesty of political controversy in our time. I don't mean merely that controversies are acrimonious. They ought to be that when they are on serious subjects. I mean that almost nobody seems to feel that an opponent deserves a fair hearing or that the objective truth matters as long as you can score a neat debating point.
The important thing is to discover which individuals are honest and which are not, and the usual blanket accusation merely makes this more difficult. The atmosphere of hatred in which controversy is conducted blinds people to considerations of this kind. To admit that an opponent might be both honest and intelligent is felt to be intolerable. It is more immediately satisfying to shout that he is a fool or a scoundrel, or both, than to find out what he is really like.
On fake news:
Early in life I have noticed that no event is ever correctly reported in a newspaper, but in Spain, for the first time, I saw newspaper reports which did not bear any relation to the facts, not even the relationship which is implied in an ordinary lie. I saw great battles reported where there had been no fighting, and complete silence where hundreds of men had been killed. I saw troops who had fought bravely denounced as cowards and traitors, and others who had never seen a shot fired hailed as the heroes of imaginary victories; and I saw newspapers in London retailing these lies and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events that had never happened. I saw, in fact, history being written not in terms of what happened but of what ought to have happened according to various ‘party lines’.
That phrase, "and eager intellectuals building emotional superstructures over events" describes to a "T" what I have seen happen among media commentators almost daily since last November 8.
It [totalitarianism] can never permit either the truthful recording of facts or the emotional sincerity that literary creation demands. But to be corrupted by totalitarianism one does not have to live in a totalitarian country. The mere prevalence of certain ideas can spread a kind of poison that makes one subject after another impossible for literary purposes. Wherever there is an enforced orthodoxy — or even two orthodoxies, as often happens — good writing stops.
The word “Facism” has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable". The words “Democracy”, “Socialism”, “Freedom”, “Patriotic”, “Realistic”, “Justice” have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another……Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different.
But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.
Orwell was critical of Gandhi, but he had this to say about him:
[Gandhi] seems wherever possible to have believed that other people were acting in good faith and had a better nature through which they could be approached.
Which should be our default setting and I think is on this forum.
I have never been able to feel much liking for Gandhi, but I do not feel sure that as a political thinker he was wrong in the main, nor do I believe that his life was a failure. … One may feel, as I do, a sort of aesthetic distaste for Gandhi, one may reject the claims of sainthood made on his behalf (he never made any such claim himself, by the way), one may also reject sainthood as an ideal and therefore feel that Gandhi's basic aims were anti-human and reactionary: but regarded simply as a politician, and compared with the other leading political figures of our time, how clean a smell he has managed to leave behind!
And this would be my ambition: that in this difficult time no matter what I say or do or how I align myself, at the end of it all to leave a "clean smell" behind.
When we stand before Christ's judgment seat, I believe that when we look behind us we will see that these political or ideological controversies have faded into the distant past, but that even our smallest kindnesses or cruelties will have followed us into the box.